“Be it remembered”–1843 Copyright Claim by Thomas Commuck (Narragansett / Brothertown) for his tunebook The Indian Harmonist

Commuck’s tunebook Indian Melodies (1845), as-published, went through substantial changes since the author’s copyright claim of Nov. 11, 1843.

One-hundred and seventy-six years ago today, a copyright notice was signed and sealed by the clerk of the District Court of Brown Co., Wisconsin Territory, not far from the Brothertown and Stockbridge communities on the east shore of Lake Winnebago. See newspaper clip from the Green Bay Republican, Tuesday, 19 December 1843, p. 3, here:

Commuck deposit notice

Thomas Commuck, Narragansett/Brothertown, had been working on a tunebook for community singing. By 1843, he had completed the project sufficiently to deposit in court a book title for copyright, along with the most terse description of contents: “original tunes in a variety of metres; also a few anthems and set pieces . . . . to which is added a few favorite tunes from various authors.”

The comparison of Commuck’s 1845 tunebook publication with his 1843 plan reveals substantial changes of still unknown provenance. It seems that much happened to Commuck’s manuscript between Wisconsin 1843 and the 1845 publication by the New York City publishers for the Methodist Episcopal Church.

As published, Commuck’s tunebook includes only the music he himself composed–with a couple important exceptions of older tunes from Native orature which Commuck was the first to publish in print and music notation (namely, “Missionary, or White Pilgrim” and “Old Indian Hymn” [–actually a hymn-tune 🙂 ]). He explains this change in his own words in the published 1845 preface. “The author had inserted in his original manuscript a number of airs which have long been in use among the Brothertown Indians, which it was thought inexpedient to publish, as it might interfere with the rights of the authors of those tunes. Had it occurred sooner to the author of these original melodies, he would have solicited from several well-known authors permission to copy into this work a few tunes from each of their published works . . . ” How grievously ironic, then, is the combined compliment and disrespect which met Commuck’s work through the theft and re-printing of his tune “Missionary” in 1850 and 1854 editions of The Sacred Harp and The Southern Harmony, respectively, under a changed title of “The Lone Pilgrim”, and further, with music composition claimed explicitly by compilers of the works, B.F. White and William Walker, resp.

Not only a single tune, but the very title of Commuck’s complete work also changed. His proposed title The Indian Harmonist became instead Indian Melodies. This title change is likely related to the decision (by publishers?) to call in the famous hymnist, composer, choral leader, and compiler Thomas Hastings–a major figure in USA mainstream 1800s hymnody. Hastings is credited on the title page of Indian Melodies for the harmonizations of tunes from Commuck’s proposed Indian Harmonist.  Hhmmm.  Wouldn’t an “Indian Harmonist” have harmonized?
Whose harmonies then do we have in the published book?

Commuck 1845 title page

The particular title page pictured here is a scan of a facsimile of the particular copy of Commuck (1845) held in The Brothertown Collection. I was honored to view this collection in Wisconsin in the summer of 2017, in the Oneida History Department (thank you, Dr. Courtney Cottrell, Brothertown Indian Nation THPO, for permission!!)–since the Oneida Nation has been exceeding generous and wonderful in helping to purchase the collection for Brothertown, and through holding and caring for and processing the collection (Thank you!!!). Caroline Andler (Brothertown) was also very kind to me with generous research help in 2017 (and before and since)–this facsimile was given by her.

The “Patent Notes” item on title page merits mention (I drew that faint smiley-face over the words “Patent Notes” on the facsimile–all objective here!–not an historical marking–sorry to confuse!). ‘Patent Notes’ here is a synonym for shape notes, the publishing and singer-helping notation in which today’s shape note singing tunebooks are still published.
Whose idea was it to publish Commuck’s tunebook in two versions, the “Patent Note” edition, and the default, standard round notes edition?
Did Commuck write his manuscript in shapes?  Were the tunes by other authors, now lost but meant to be included, from what we think of as the shape note tradition?  Or did the idea come from New York, hoping for wider audiences and better sales? The odd thing about the New York idea is that Thomas Hastings was a vehement, vociferous opponent of shape notes.

Who was thinking what, choosing to bring together:  centuries of New England and British hymnody traditions; an amalgamated Native Nation gathered from over a half dozen other Native communities of southern New England and East End of Long Island; music notation systems associated alternately with state-religions and institutions and urban centers or with myriad dissenting, Dissenting, and/or rural religious communities north and south, east and west of the Appalachians, and the resulting musics built from European, African, and Native American singing traditions, influences, and mutual acculturations; and the unlikely and accidental actor in the midst of all this, Thomas Hastings !!???   The connections with Methodism have also been earnest, persistent, complex, and important for Commuck and at least some others of his community–how is that denominational affiliation related to all these other questions?

These are only a few of the evocative perplexities and promptings for the current researches . . . .
Stay tuned for more reports, because:–
–“Nothing changes faster than the past!”
[this last beautiful quip is from my historian colleague of Columbia, CT, Andrea Stannard — thanks!]

Thanks for reading!                                 — by A. Gabriel Kastelle —

Author: whiteravenarchivesproject

musician, independent scholar, shape note singer, Brothertown Indian Nation cultural researcher and ally

One thought on ““Be it remembered”–1843 Copyright Claim by Thomas Commuck (Narragansett / Brothertown) for his tunebook The Indian Harmonist”

  1. This is interesting to me; and makes me glad that you are still pursuing what I know you have researched so intensely.


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